Working life

My favourite psychology books for designers

3 minute read
design psychology

Time to concentrate can be limited and motivation may be in short supply when there are young kids to contend with. Going on a Bear Hunt only gets you so far in looking at the world. I realised there was a mounting library of design related books that was crying out for attention.

In the last few months, there has been a chink of light. I took advantage of this breathing room and went on a reading spree. My first book was something that has sat on my shelf for a long time, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. His central thesis is that people are flawed, blinded by their biases which then leads to irrational behaviour and thinking. Ah yes, I thought, now this is why I’m terrible at betting and even worse at saving. 

It’s good to have another guide in helping us build products at earlier stages in the process.

After finishing this, I promptly fell down the rabbit hole into a weird and surprising world of human frailties and mind tricks. A world of behavioural economics, cognitive psychology and digital communication has been filling my bookshelf/Kindle/Audible app. Having bought a copy of Cognitive Psychology and its Implications many years ago, I knew there were many insights that might be helpful in design. 

Next, I made my way through Drive and Hooked, books relating very strongly to product design. After this, I still hadn’t quite had my fill and went headlong into Predictably Irrational, Fooled by Randomness, Quiet, Art of Choosing and The Idea Factory. While not a book about why people do things, The Idea Factory does describe the sometimes strange and brilliant decisions made through the 20th century of computing history. 

Having done a lot of user testing, something which you do after you have a concept prototyped, it’s helpful to have psychological research to either backup or guide design rationale in the early design stages.

The caveat

I’m fully aware that these topics are now in vogue and every self-respecting designer and creative is expected to wheel out research based on some psychological experiment. But let’s not get carried away. As we learn through these books, we mustn’t fall into the traps of thinking we can apply all of these theories to what we do. When I say ‘a little’ of this information can be applied, I mean precisely this. 

I have seen the principles of ‘Cognitive ease and strain’ being wheeled out like some superficial gloss overlayed on design rationale.

I have seen many of these theories being crowbarred into design and marketing articles called 10 ways to make people use your product’ or ‘How to build a successful product with psychology’. Principles such as Cognitive ease and strain are wheeled out like some superficial gloss overlayed on design rationale.

Applying much of these methods is far too simplistic, and when we find a principle that does look relevant, we really need to implement it in a structured approach instead of superficially changing the line-height of text on your website in the hope the principles hold true. These books and research are just guides to making us think differently.

Some reflection

Remarkably, my time with psychologists who talk about our inadequacies hasn’t made me any more pessimistic about the human race. It has simply made me more understanding of our failures and at times downright stupidity.

I’m ‘aware’ that all this reading will in all ‘probability’ fail to change my habits and behaviour, but what I do hope is, that it will make me pause for thought and reflection during major decisions. As Nassim Taleb says, “we are faulty, and there is no need to bother trying to correct our flaws. We are so defective and so mismatched to our environment, that we can just work around these flaws.”

My Top reads

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

psychology of design


Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

psychology of design


Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

psychology of design


The Art Of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

psychology of design


The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

psychology of design


Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

psychology of design


Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

psychology of design


Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel H Pink

psychology of design

1 Comment
  1. Great post, Dave, and I’ll be sure to be stuck into some of these. As luck would have it, I’m in the middle of Think Fast And Slow right now and really enjoying it.

Leave Your Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *